The Amazing Cause-And-Effect Man
The little red lights on the jukebox in the corner finally changed. CD 23 track 4. At last, Sarah thought to herself. She had waited almost an hour for it already in a bar she didn't like and didn't normally consider. It was one of the weird pubs with wooden barrels on their ends for tables and uncomfortable stools scattered around. Supposedly the beer was amazing, but Sarah only drank Guinness, and that was mediocre at best.
All I wanna do is have a little fun before I die, says a man next to me out of nowhere, apropos of nothing he says him name is William...
"My name is William, you know." She hadn't even seen him arrive, let alone pull up a stool next to her. He wore black jeans and a plain grey tee-shirt, the colour suggesting it used to be black but had faded from too many washes. He had a slight smile on his pockmarked face, as if he knew her already and was enjoying watching her guess. Sarah frowned at him for a few seconds, and then decided he was just a student-type trying to chat her up. She nodded at him and returned to her Guinness, hoping he would go away. Either that or the barmaid would turn up the jukebox a bit so she could hear the song anyway.
...and he's plain ugly to me, and I wonder if he's ever had a day of fun...
"Sorry to have troubled you," he said, and threw a glass of whiskey down his throat. "It's just I thought you might not want to die today." He placed the glass gently back on the bar, then stood up and pulled his coat off the bar-stool where he had slung it earlier. Sarah looked down, wondering how long he'd been there. She couldn't have been paying attention.
"It that a threat?" she asked, still angry that the guy was interrupting her listening.
Even that level of interest seemed to be taken as an invitation, and he hung the coat back on the bar-stool and sat down again, waving a finger at the bar-maid. "No, it's a statement of my own opinion. I thought you might not want to die. That is all."
She couldn't hear the song, and there seemed little point in trying. It was a stupid idea to put it on anyway. It would only remind her of the weekend. It was hearing that song that had made her feel courageous enough to visit her parents, and look where that had got her. She'd even had a row with her flatmate, Jo. She looked up at the man again. He was staring straight into her eyes, unblinking. "Look," she said. "If this is a weird attempt at a chat-up by trying to confuse me, it's not going to work. I'm just not interested."
"Let me assure you, Sarah, that I have no physical interest in you whatsoever." She would have found that rather hurtful if she wasn't trying to work out where he could have found out her name from. "I am merely trying to determine if you would like my help in surviving the day."
"So just how am I going to die then? And how did you know my name?" She avoided looking directly at him, finding it extremely disconcerting that she hadn't seen him blink yet.
"Your manner of death is largely up to you. There are many futures open to us from here. And as to how I know your name, I just know. I also know that the reason you are here today is because of your mother shouting at you last week for not wearing your good dress to the interview."
"What? I'm here because I wanted a drink." The echoes of the arguments of the last two days had been ringing round her head all morning. She needed a drink.
"J.D. again please," he said, turning to the barmaid who had just appeared behind his left shoulder. He turned and threw a twenty-pound note onto the bar. "And whatever this young lady is drinking. And have one yourself. You look as if you need it."
The barmaid looked over at Sarah. "Not for me thanks," Sarah replied.
"Sure?" he asked.
"That'll be three-seventeen, then," said the barmaid, putting a shot-glass down on the bar. A moment later she placed two notes and some change next to it.
"It is a tragedy, it really is."
"What?" asked Sarah, irritated that her song would be finishing in a moment and she'd hardly heard any of it.
"The barmaid, Clare. She will... oh well, it isn't important. Not to you."
"Like you know what's important to me."
"Your mother's approval is."
"Well there's a great piece of psychic power. You look at someone and say 'Your mother is very important in your life.' Or 'was' if she turns out to be dead. It's like saying 'You don't want to die'. Oh, but of course, you said that, too."
"Your mother shouted at you for not putting on the dress, which made you go back and throw the dress around your bedroom at home and then left it on the floor, which meant that when you spilled the coffee down the side of the bed it stained the dress, which meant you had to bring it in to get it dry-cleaned, which is why you are here today waiting until it is ready to be picked up."
"How the hell did you know that?"
"I saw you."
"You some kind of peeping Tom or something?"
"No." He looked upwards. "I just see the way the world fits together. That's all. You have reached a decision point. From here there are many ways the world can go, and it is your decision."
"Oh, right, like chaos. I saw Jurassic Park, too, you know."
"No, not like chaos. Chaos is unpredictability, minute changes having dramatic and unforeseen consequences. This is not like that at all. Once this decision is made, the world will fall into one of the patterns I can see, and once there it will remain."
"Right, so my life is going to be totally changed by picking up a dress. Like the barmaid's life will be changed by you buying her a drink."
He looked round at the barmaid, who was putting some glasses into the dishwasher. "No, that has made no difference. She will die tonight. She will be run over on her way home." For a brief moment his eyes seemed to glaze over, as if he was looking at something behind the bar.
"So tell her, and maybe she'll get a taxi," Sarah suggested.
"No," he replied, turning back to Sarah. "Her life is over. There will be no more decisions."
"Oh great, so it's only me you're interested in. How come I get the nutters? So I suppose something terrible is waiting for me if I just get up and leave, right?"
"That depends. If you walk out and collect your dress now, you will get home in time for Dr Zhivago, and you'll settle down in front of the TV. When it starts getting a bit colder you'll turn the gas fire on, and then fall asleep fifteen minutes before the end like you did last time. The gas fire has begun leaking, and you will never wake up. It is not an unpleasant death, but I suspect you would still dislike the prospect."
Something in the tone of his voice made her shiver slightly. It was as if he was saying something so obvious it was impossible for her to deny it.
"So I don't turn the fire on."
"Of course you don't. Not now. You won't get home if you leave now, because a young man will be in the dry-cleaner's already. He will have lost his ticket and you will have to wait almost twenty minutes. When you leave it will be getting dark, and you will take the short-cut across the ford to get home in time for the film. You will never see the man who hits you. There will be a lot of pain, but it will be mercifully brief."
Sarah's hands had started shaking. The man's face seemed odd now, too. There had been no change, not really, but his eyes were staring at her as if it really was a matter of life-and-death. She kept trying to tell herself that he was mad, or she was mad, but he spoke so clearly and with such force that she found it impossible not to believe what he was saying.
"So when do I have to leave?" she asked, all sarcasm gone from her voice.
"Closing time," he replied. "You will leave at closing time. You will end up spending the night at someone else's house, although you will not sleep. Tomorrow morning you will arrive home to the slight smell of gas, and will report it immediately."
"I will," she said, still shaking. She swallowed the last of her pint and looked over at the barmaid.
"Good. Would you like that drink now, then?"
She accepted, and he bought her another pint. When she had finished it, he bought yet another one. They sat in silence at the bar, him staring down into his whiskeys and her staring towards her own reflection in the mirror below the optics. She didn't want to die. That was all she could think of. Her eyes were wide open, and she could hardly blink. She didn't want to die.
Just as the barmaid came to throw the two of them out, the man picked up his coat and walked quickly out of the pub. Sarah got up and ran after him, wanting to thank him. She pushed the door open, only to see him running across the road away from her. She thought about calling after him, but realised she didn't know his name.
On the other side of the road he joined a group of young men and one woman. Sarah glanced at her and then looked back. Jo. What was her flatmate doing here...? Then, in an instant, she realised. As a ten-pound note changed hands, Sarah just stopped, dead, wanting to be somewhere else. Wanting to have gone to a different pub, or not listened to him. Anything rather than standing in the road, all of them laughing at her, staring at her. She shut her eyes, trying to make sure she didn't cry.
Jo of all people. They were friends. How could she...?
Sarah turned to run.
The car seemed to come from nowhere.
It swerved away from her with a screech and collided with a lamp-post. She turned instinctively, and saw it recoil sideways from the lamp-post, sliding towards the bar entrance. The barmaid was just leaving, and stood, stock-still, staring at the car coming towards her. Sarah tried to shout, but no sound came out. Someone screamed.
The car smashed into the front wall of the pub. The barmaid looked like a crash test dummy as she was crushed between car and wall. Her eyes were still wide open after the car had ricocheted off the wall. She stood upright for almost a second before falling to the pavement.
When the car stopped the boys were silent, and the note had been dropped. Sarah looked down at her hands – they had stopped shaking. She looked over at the group, standing around, pointedly not looking at each other. The man – her drinking companion – was staring towards the accident, as afraid as she herself had been a few minutes before.
Sarah crossed the road, slowly walking towards him. She smiled as she approached. He began to back off.
"Thank you," she said, picking up the note and handing it back to him. "Take it. You deserve it."
He held out his hand. It was shaking violently, and he dropped the note almost instantly. "Oh my God," he said, stuttering.
"You thought you were making it up, didn't you?"
He didn't move.
"Can you see the future now?" she asked, quietly. "Are you going to tell all of these people their futures?" She waved her hand towards the group. Jo was looking at her, tears streaming down her face.
He continued staring at the stationary car, as motionless as the scene in front of him. He wasn't even breathing.
Sarah nodded. She took out her diary. After making a note to report the gas-leak tomorrow, she settled down to wait for the police.